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help. I found it was “the act of abolishing”; but then I did not
know what was to be abolished. Here I was perplexed. I did not
dare to ask any one about its meaning, for I was satisfied that it
was something they wanted me to know very little about. After
a patient waiting, I got one of our city papers, containing an
account of the number of petitions from the north, praying for
the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and of the
slave trade between the States. From this time I understood the
words abolition and abolitionist, and always drew near when that
word was spoken, expecting to hear something of importance to
myself and fellow-slaves. The light broke in upon me by degrees. I
went one day down on the wharf of Mr. Waters; and seeing two
Irishmen unloading a scow of stone, I went, unasked, and helped
them. When we had finished, one of them came to me and asked
me if I were a slave. I told him I was. He asked, ”Are ye a slave for
life?” I told him that I was. The good Irishman seemed to be
deeply affected by the statement. He said to the other that it was a
. pity so fine a little fellow as myself should be a slave for life. He
said it was a shame to hold me. They both advised me to run away
to the north; that I should find friends there, and that I should be
free. I pretended not to be interested in what they said, and
treated them as if I did not understand them; for I feared they
might be treacherous. White men have been known to encourage
slaves to escape, and then, to get the reward, catch them and
return them to their masters. I was afraid that these seemingly
good men might use me so; but I nevertheless remembered their
advice, and from that time I resolved to run away. I looked for
ward to a time at which it would be safe for me to escape. I was
too young to think of doing so immediately; besides, I wished to
learn how to write, as I might have occasion to write my own
pass. I consoled myself with the hope that I should one day find a
good chance. Meanwhile, I would learn to write.
The idea as to how I might learn to write was suggested to me
by being in Durgin and Bailey’s ship-yard, and frequently seeing
the ship carpenters, after hewing, and getting a piece of timber
ready for use, write on the timber the name of that part of the
ship for which it was intended. When a piece of timber was
intended for the larboard side, it would be marked thus- “L.”
When a piece was for the starboard side, it would be marked
LEARNING TO READ AND WRITE
thus- “S.” A piece for the larboard side forward, would be
marked thus- “L. F.” When a piece was for starboard side for
ward, it would be marked thus- “S. F.” For larboard aft, it would
be marked thus- “L. A.” For starboard aft, it would be marked
thus- “S. A.” I soon learned the names of these letters, and for
what they were intended when placed upon a piece of timber in
the ship-yard. I immediately commenced copying them, and in a
short time was able to make the four letters named. After that,
when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him
I could write as well as he. The next word would be, “I don’t
believe you. Let me see you try it.” I would then make the letters
which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat
that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is
quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way.
During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall,
and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I
learned mainly how to write. I then commenced and continued
copying the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book, until I could make
them all without looking on the book. By this time, my little
Master Thomas had gone to school, and learned how to write,
and had written over a number of copy-books. These had been
brought home, and shown to some of our near neighbors, and
then laid aside. My mistress used to go to class meeting at the
Wilk Street meetinghouse every Monday afternoon, and leave me
to take care of the house. When left thus, I used to spend the time
in writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas’s copy-book, copy
ing what he had written. I continued to do this until I could write
a hand very similar to that of Master Thomas. Thus, after a long,
tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to
For Discussion and Writing
1. List the different ways Douglass taught himself to read and write. List
also some other things he learns.
2. The main focus of this passage is the process by which Douglass
began to become literate. Who else in the passage undergoes a “learn
ing” process, and what are the results?
3. Douglass teaches himself to read and write in a society that condemns
“Learning to Read”
Born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, Malcolm X was one of the most articulate and powerful leaders of black
America during the 1960s. A street hustler convicted of robbery in 1946, he spent seven years in prison, where he
educated himself and became a disciple of Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam. In the days of the civil
rights movement, Malcolm X emerged as the leading spokesman for black separatism, a philosophy that urged black
Americans to cut political, social, and economic ties with the white community. After a pilgrimage to Mecca, the
capital of the Muslim world, in 1964, he became an orthodox Muslim, adopted the Muslim name El Hajj Malik
El-Shabazz, and distanced himself from the teachings of the black Muslims. He was assassinated in 1965. In the
following excerpt from his autobiography (1965), coauthored with Alex Haley and published the year of his death,
Malcolm X describes his self-education.
It was because of my letters that I happened to stumble upon starting to acquire some kind of a
I became increasingly frustrated. at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters
that I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad. In the street, I had been the most articulate
hustler out there – I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write
simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional. How would I sound writing in
slang, the way I would say it, something such as, “Look, daddy, let me pull your coat about a cat,
Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read
something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is
due entirely to my prison studies.
It had really begun back in the Charlestown Prison, when Bimbi first made me feel envy of
his stock of knowledge. Bimbi had always taken charge of any conversations he was in, and I
had tried to emulate him. But every book I picked up had few sentences which didn’t contain
anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might as well have been in Chinese. When I
just skipped those words, of course, I really ended up with little idea of what the book said. So I
had come to the Norfolk Prison Colony still going through only book-reading motions. Pretty
soon, I would have quit even these motions, unless I had received the motivation that I did.
I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary – to study, to learn some words.
I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I
couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a
dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.
I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so
many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind
of action, I began copying.
In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that
first page, down to the punctuation marks.
I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the
tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.
I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words – immensely proud to realize that
not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the
world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I
reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first
page right now, that “aardvark” springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a longtailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its
tongue as an anteater does for ants.
I was so fascinated that I went on – I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience
came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and
events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s
A section had filled a whole tablet-and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying
what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to
pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of
my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.
I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a
book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a
great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left
that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my
bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad’s
teachings, my correspondence, my visitors,… and my reading of books, months passed without my
even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.
The Norfolk Prison Colony’s library was in the school building. A variety of classes was taught
there by instructors who came from such places as Harvard and Boston universities. The weekly
debates between inmate teams were also held in the school building. You would be astonished to
know how worked up convict debaters and audiences would get over subjects like “Should Babies
Be Fed Milk?”
Available on the prison library’s shelves were books on just about every general subject. Much of
the big private collection that Parkhurst1 had willed to the prison was still in crates and boxes in the
back of the library – thousands of old books. Some of them looked ancient: covers faded, oldtime
parchment-looking binding. Parkhurst. . . seemed to have been principally interested in history and
religion. He had the money and the special interest to have a lot of books that you wouldn’t have in
a general circulation. Any college library would have been lucky to get that collection.
As you can imagine, especially in a prison where there was heavy emphasis on rehabilitation, an
inmate was smiled upon if he demonstrated an unusually intense interest in books. There was a
sizable number of well-read inmates, especially the popular debaters. Some were said by many to be
practically walking encyclopedias. They were almost celebrities. No university would ask any student
to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand.
I read more in my room than in the library itself. An inmate who was known to read a lot could
check out more than the permitted maximum number of books. I preferred reading in the total
isolation of my own room.
When I had progressed to really serious reading, every night at about ten P.M. I would be
outraged with the “lights out.” It always seemed to catch me right in the middle of something
Charles H. Parkhurst (1842-1933); American clergyman, reformer, and president of the Society for the Prevention
Fortunately, right outside my door was a corridor light that cast a glow into my room. The glow
was enough to read by, once my eyes adjusted to it. So when “lights out” came, I would sit on the
floor where I could continue reading in that glow.
At one-hour intervals at night guards paced past every room. Each time I heard the approaching
footsteps, I jumped into bed and feigned sleep. And as soon as the guard passed, I got back out of
bed onto the floor area of that light-glow, where I would read for another fifty-eight minutes until
the guard approached again. That went on until three or four every morning. Three or four hours of
sleep a night was enough for me. Often in the years in the streets I had slept less than that.
The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been “whitened” – when white men
had written history books, the black man simply had been left out. Mr. Muhammad couldn’t have
said anything that would have struck me much harder. I had never forgotten how when my class, me
and all of those whites, had studied seventh-grade United States history back in Mason, the history
of the Negro had been covered in one paragraph, and the teacher had gotten a big laugh with his
joke, “Negroes’ feet are so big that when they walk, they leave a hole in the ground.”
This is one reason why Mr. Muhammad’s teachings spread so swiftly all over the United States,
among all Negroes, whether or not they became followers of Mr. Muhammad. The teachings ring
true-to every Negro. You can hardly show me a black adult in America – or a white one, for that
matter – who knows from the history books anything like the truth about the black man’s role. In my
own case, once I heard of the “glorious history of the black man,” I took special pains to hunt in the
library for books that would inform me on details about black history.
I can remember accurately the very first set of books that really impressed me. I have since
bought that set of books and I have it at home for my children to read as they grow up. It’s called
Wonders of the World. It’s full of pictures of archeological finds, statues that depict, usually, nonEuropean people.
I found books like Will Durant’s Story of Civilization. I read H. G. Wells’ Outline of History. Souls of
Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois gave me a glimpse into the black people’s history before they came
to this country. Carter G. Woodson’s Negro History opened my eyes about black empires before the
black slave was brought to the United States, and the early Negro struggles for freedom.
J. A. Rogers’ three volumes of Sex and Race told about race-mixing before Christ’s time; and
Aesop being a black man who told fables; about Egypt’s Pharaohs; about the great Coptic Christian
Empire2; about Ethiopia, the earth’s oldest continuous black civilization, as China is the oldest
Mr. Muhammad’s teaching about how the white man had been created led me to Findings in
Genetics, by Gregor Mendel. (The dictionary’s G section was where I had learned what “genetics”
meant.) I really studied this book by the Austrian monk. Reading it over and over, especially certain
sections, helped me to understand that if you started with a black man, a white man could be
produced; but starting with a white man, you never could produce a black man – because the white
chromosome is recessive. And since no one disputes that there was but one Original Man, the
conclusion is clear.
During the last year or so, in the New York Times, Arnold Toynbeell used the word “bleached” in
describing the white man. His words were: “White (i.e., bleached) human beings of North
A native Egyptian Christian church that retains elements of its African origins.
European origin…” Toynbee also referred to the European geographic area as only a peninsula of
Asia. He said there was no such thing as Europe. And if you look at the globe, you will see for
yourself that America is only an extension of Asia. (But at the same time Toynbee is among those
who have helped to bleach history. He has written that Africa was the only continent that produced
no history. He won’t write that again. Every day now, the truth is coming to light.)
I never will forget how shocked I was when I began reading about slavery’s total horror. It made
such an impact upon me that it later became one of my favorite subjects when I became a minister
of Mr. Muhammad’s. The world’s most monstrous crime, the sin and the blood on the white man’s
hands, are almost impossible to believe. Books like the one by Frederick Olmsted opened my eyes to
the horrors suffered when the slave was landed in the United States. The European woman, Fanny
Kemble, who had married a Southern white slaveowner, described how human beings were
degraded. Of course I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In fact, I believe that’s the only novel I have ever read
since I started serious reading.
Parkhurst’s collection also contained some bound pamphlets of the Abolitionist Anti-Slavery
Society of New England. I read descriptions of atrocities, saw those illustrations of black slave
women tied up and flogged with whips; of black mothers watching their babies being dragged off,
never to be seen by their mothers again; of dogs after slaves, and of the fugitive slave catchers, evil
white men with whips and clubs and chains and guns. I read about the slave preacher Nat Turner,
who put the fear of God into the white slave master. Nat Turner wasn’t going around preaching piein-the-sky and “non-violent” freedom for the black man. There in Virginia one night in 1831, Nat
and seven other slaves started out at his master’s home and through the night they went from one
plantation “big house” to the next, killing, until by the next morning 57 white people were dead and
Nat had about 70 slaves following him. White people, terrified for their lives, fled from their homes,
locked themselves up in public buildings, hid in the woods, and some even left the state. A small
army of soldiers took two months to catch and hang Nat Turner. Somewhere I have read where Nat
Turner’s example is said to have inspired John Brown to invade Virginia and attack Harpers Ferry
nearly thirty years later, with thirteen white men and five Negroes.
I read Herodotus, “the father of History,” or, rather, I read about him. And I read the
histories of various nations, which opened my eyes gradually, then wider and wider, to how the
whole world’s white men had indeed acted like devils, pillaging and raping and bleeding and
draining the whole world’s non-white people. I remember, for instance, books such as Will
Durant’s The Story of Oriental Civilization, and Mahatma Gandhi’s accounts of the struggle to drive
the British out of India.
Book after book showed me how the white man had brought upon the world’s black,
brown, red, and yellow peoples every variety of the suffering of exploitation. I saw how since the
sixteenth century, the so-called “Christian trader” white man began to ply the seas in his lust for
Asian and African empires, and plunder, and power. I read, I saw, how the white man never has
gone among the non-white peoples bearing the Cross in the true manner and spirit of Christ’s
teachings – meek, humble, and Christlike.
I perceived, as I read, how the collective white man had been actually nothing but a piratical
opportunist who used Faustian machinations3 to make his own Christianity his initial wedge in
criminal conquests. First, always “religiously,” he branded “heathen” and “pagan” labels upon
ancient non-white cultures and civilizations. The stage thus set, he then turned upon his non-white
victims his weapons of war.
Evil plots or schemes. Faust was a fictional character who sold his soul to the devil for knowledge and power.
I read how, entering India – half a billion deeply religious brown people – the British white man,
by 1759, through promises, trickery, and …
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